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Bennett and Freed: It’s the Economy, Stupid

It’s one of the most over-quoted scraps of paper in political history, but James Carville’s war room bulletin board list from 1992 should nevertheless go up on the walls of every energy reform advocate in 2009: “Change vs. more of the same; The economy, stupid; Don’t forget health care.”

That final one is as true today as it was back then — health care is coming first. But when Washington circles back to energy in the fall, reform advocates must convince Senators that voters want and expect change in the way that we generate and use energy.

And they must emphasize above all else the promise of how energy reform could generate economic growth.

In recent focus group research that Third Way conducted with Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, we found that even swing voters in the Midwest and the South — moderates who split their tickets in 2008 — believe that the country voted for change last year. They think the government has a duty to bring change to the energy sector, and they believe the Great Recession is no barrier to action on energy reform. Indeed, they believe the economic downturn is a reason for action, not an excuse to delay.

This is the core point that reform advocates must drive home: Moderate voters are primed to believe that getting America running on clean energy will be good for the U.S. economy. They understand that reform represents a huge opportunity — that transforming our energy sector will require massive economic activity that would help drive us out of recession. And they also sense a real challenge — that the U.S. is falling behind in the race for the “next big thing.” They believe that if we do nothing we are in danger of losing our place as leaders of the global economy, but if we take action energy reform can help us lead the world in this area, as we did in the tech revolution of the 1990s.

Clean-energy advocates must also be careful in how they talk about the benefits of reform. Voters are wary of Washington catchphrases. They don’t really know what “green jobs” are (in our groups, some guessed that meant park rangers). Instead, they view energy reform as creating plenty of new jobs across industries, including manufacturing, retrofitting buildings and erecting new transmission lines. Moreover, even those who did not see a job for themselves in the clean-energy sector believe that the economic growth generated by reform would be good for them, their families and their communities.

While moderate voters are confident that reform would drive growth, they are also worried about the potential downsides. Consequently, in the weeks since the House passed the Waxman-Markey bill, opponents have gone on the offensive, seeking to convince Senators that reform would raise costs astronomically at a time when we can least afford it. Voters are in a nervous mood, and a simple message designed to crank up their anxiety is resonating.

Thus, if they are to prevail, reformers must have a simple narrative of their own: Energy reform equals economic growth. By driving this idea, reformers can flip around the current dynamic. Rather than viewing energy reform as a bitter pill that Senators — and, by extension, their constituents — must swallow because it’s the responsible thing to do, Senators will focus on the enormous benefits that reform will bring to their states and the nation. Most importantly, this formulation has the benefit of being true — the positive economic impact of becoming the world leader on clean energy will ripple through our economy for decades.

President Barack Obama understands this. When he was asked in last fall’s town-hall presidential debate about global warming, he noted how crucial it is that we deal with climate change but then quickly pivoted to the economic benefits of clean energy. So we can be confident that after he leaves the Rose Garden signing ceremony for health care reform and turns to the energy bill, he will be the most persuasive messenger of the economic argument.

But reform advocates cannot afford to wait for the White House decks to clear. The debate is starting to drift away from them, and they must clarify and amplify their message now.

They should also pause to remember the power of Carville’s admonition. That campaign’s focus on the economy above all else helped break the 12-year Republican grip on the White House and propel Bill Clinton into the Oval Office. The power of that message, if used effectively today, can help break 30 years of stagnation in our energy policy and propel the United States to the forefront of a global economic revolution.

Matt Bennett is a co-founder and vice president of Third Way. Joshua Freed is senior policy adviser for clean energy at Third Way.

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